Technology & Science·Analysis

Digital vigilantism after Charlottesville: Get ready for more naming and shaming

As people grow frustrated by the seeming lack of repercussions for overt racist behaviour, it’s likely we will see more digital vigilantism and more support for “naming and shaming” campaigns.

'How can we make change and do good in the world? Is it through Twitter?' professor wonders

The word 'shame' is written on a Confederate monument in Norfolk, Va., near a photograph of Heather Heyer, who was killed Saturday in Charlottesville, Va. Naming-and-shaming campaigns online are targeting participants in the rally where she was killed. (Steve Earley/The Virginian-Pilot via Associated Press)

In many ways, last weekend's rally in Charlottesville, Va., was a chilling throwback to an era most people had hoped we'd moved on from, one in which racists were emboldened to march in the streets, denouncing the lives and rights of others through violence and angry chants, yelling, "White lives matter" and "Jews will not replace us." 

But there are some key differences between the events of the last few days and the decades prior: namely, the rise of the internet and the proliferation of social media channels.

This is how news is now broken, how we seek out and share information and organize ourselves, and increasingly, it's a tool for vigilantism. And now concerned, connected citizens are using our new tools, like Twitter, to ensure history won't repeat itself.   

Following Saturday's Unite the Right rally, a Twitter account called @YesYoureRacist, called on the crowdsourcing efforts of its more than 360,000 followers to help identify people who had participated in the event.

Posting photos and screenshots as they became available, the account prompted followers to send the names and social media profiles of anyone they recognized at the rally, amplifying those responses by reposting them to the large online crowd.
These images show, clockwise from upper left: a Google sign at a store in Florida, the Twitter app displayed on a smartphone, PayPal headquarters in San Jose, Calif., and the Facebook app displayed on an iPad. Some technology companies are denying their services to white-nationalist groups. (Associated Press)

It's not the first time people have turned to the internet in this way. We've seen this kind of digital vigilantism for almost as long as we've had access to social media platforms, with people taking it upon themselves to solve crimes and seek justice.

In 2013, following the Boston Marathon bombings, users took to Reddit to piece together clues and try to identify the culprit. Unfortunately in that case, the digital collective got it wrong, publicly identifying someone who turned out to be innocent.

'Trial by social media'

That incident left many people questioning the potential risks associated with this kind of crowdsourced investigation or "trial by social media," specifically, the dangers of misidentification when a digital collective untrained in detective work and not necessarily thinking about due process takes matters into its own hands.

Nonetheless, as people grow frustrated by the seeming lack of repercussions for emboldened and overt racist behaviour, it's likely we will see more digital vigilantism, and more support for these kinds of "naming and shaming" campaigns.

Jon Ronson, the author of So You've Been Publicly Shamed, took to Twitter to respond to the weekend's events, and notably to the naming and shaming of rally participants. He said that there is "a big difference between being a white power activist" and making an offensive or misinformed comment online, but also pointed out that this kind of crowdsourcing is not an "exact science" and cautioned the possibility that "innocent people will get doxxed too."

Doxxing refers to publicly posting someone's private information online.

But while many in the media are using the term to label the outing of these racist rioters, others argue this is different. That's because doxxing often targets women or minorities. A private phone number or home address is posted online with the intent of victimizing a person and making her vulnerable to physical harm offline.
People participate in a candlelight vigil at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville Wednesday night. Hundreds gathered on the campus for the rally against hate and violence. (Andrew Shurtleff/The Daily Progress via Associated Press)

Laurie Petrou, a colleague of mine and the director of the master's program of media production at Ryerson University, had her home address posted online following a tweet in which she stated that she wanted her students "to have a safe place to work in the digital industry when they graduate." She says, "It really shook me … I was targeted because I'm a woman … It meant that from then on, I was reluctant to speak about issues that are often very important to me for fear of that happening again."

"If you publish their phone number, home address, and other credentials like social security numbers, that certainly counts as doxxing," says Gabriella Coleman, the Wolfe Chair in scientific and technological literacy at McGill University and author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. "But when a person is already public, naming them alone does not quite count as doxxing."

These protesters weren't hiding

She adds that perhaps if they were masked, revealing names alone could be considered doxxing. But as others have pointed out, these protesters weren't hiding their identities; they weren't in masks or hoods.

In an interview with CNN, "Yes, You're Racist" founder Logan Smith, who likened the photos that flooded Twitter with images from 1930s Germany, stated, "These people, they're not hiding anymore, they're not wearing hoods anymore. If they're really so proud of their white supremacist belief, then I think that their communities should know who these people are."

Ronson echoed this sentiment, tweeting they "were undisguised in a massively contentious rally surrounded by the media."

In fact, in many cases, they looked right into the cameras as they shouted and gestured the Nazi salute.
An artist works on a mural of Heyer on Wednesday before a memorial service for her in Charlottesville. Connected citizens are also using new tools, like Twitter, to battle racism. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

As the unofficial arbiter on whether this naming and shaming constitutes doxxing, even Twitter seems to side with the vigilantes this time around.

While the company hasn't commented about this latest naming and shaming campaign, it does have strict rules about the disclosure of personal information on its platform. Twitter's terms of service refer to actions such as sharing intimate photos or financial information. Identifying individuals from photographs taken in public settings like the Charlottesville rally does not violate those rules.

We are far more comfortable when journalists unveil perpetrators.— Gabriella Coleman of McGill University

"Understandably we are far more comfortable when journalists unveil perpetrators, as they have the training and resources for fact-checking," says Coleman, noting that there has been some discussion around the ethics around this kind of naming and shaming campaign.

Still, she adds, "the danger of misidentification is next to nil when there are clear photos of the protesters and hundreds of people who may know the individual and can verify the name." But, as the New York Times reported, that misidentification can and did happen this weekend.

Shaming, says Coleman, seems like a reasonable response, especially when faced with racism of this nature.  

Even Petrou, who has found herself reluctant to retweet the posts identifying the neo-Nazis from the Charlottesville rally, says, "If we do not condemn these people for their deplorable actions, we will continue to see history repeating itself, as it is. The question is, with all the tools we have at our disposal, how can we make change and do good in the world? Is it through Twitter?"

Protesters, silhouetted against the evening sky, demonstrate in Philadelphia on Wednesday in response to the Charlottesville rally. (Matt Slocum/Associated Press)

About the Author

Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.